Prosecuting survival in Iowa City


An unhoused individual, Michael Beaver, is being prosecuted for animal neglect.

In Iowa City the struggle to survive without stable housing is already difficult in itself, but the city practically goes out of its way to make things even harder.

The city passed a series of anti-busking laws in 2012 meant to clear the Pedestrian Mall area at the behest of commercial interests. Most recently, it was an incredible struggle to get the no-barriers winter shelter up and running, despite a number of days in December with subzero temperatures. It took the extraordinary effort of local activists to finally make that a reality, because the city all but completely denied any responsibility for the situation. Their reasoning? “That is not a service the city traditionally provides.”

Perhaps most egregious was when, last summer, public works and the police department cleared several encampments without proper notice. The city destroyed all the worldly possessions of the people who were living there, including things they need to survive, like bedding, on the pretense that the locations had become unsanitary. That may be, but I know I have a hard time getting my daughter to clean her room. If I were to use that as a pretext to toss everything she owns — including her bed — into the back of a truck and haul it off to the dump, that would be considered the very height of cruelty. And yet, if the city does this to a group of unhoused residents, it’s considered par for the course.

Now, an unhoused individual, Michael Beaver, is being prosecuted for animal neglect, specifically for failing to provide water and shelter. However, at the very moment Iowa City police officer Jess Bernhard found his dog Zeus under the footbridge where they had been staying, Beaver was away trying to find water and food for his beloved pet. He had previously even gone so far as to take Zeus to a veterinary hospital, where he was diagnosed with heatstroke, but lacking the $800 he would have needed to treat the dog, Beaver had little recourse but to try and care for Zeus on his own. When the city had Zeus euthanized, they then proceeded to blame Beaver for his pet’s death and press charges.

At no point did anyone from the animal hospital, the police department or the prosecutor’s office consider the difficulties Beaver and Zeus were suffering together. Those were some of the hottest days of the year, but rather than seek out a means of cooling himself, Beaver stayed with Zeus, at risk to his own health and safety, because shelters do not allow unhoused residents to bring pets with them. Far from neglect, he refused to abandon Zeus when the heat was just as much a danger to him as it was to his companion. Instead of offering to help, the city and county have chosen to make Beaver’s suffering even worse, at a time when he more than anyone else is grieving for Zeus’s death.

The situation speaks to the way we as a community don’t give unhoused residents the same benefit of the doubt we ourselves enjoy. I too have been put in the position of having a pet euthanized due to the inability to treat their cancer. No one came to prosecute me. I was showered with sympathy and love. We owe the same to Michael Beaver, not the added cruelty we so often perpetrate on the homeless. And so, the least we can do is demand Janet Lyness drop all charges against him.

Nicholas Theisen writes about Iowa City government at

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